Exodus Route – “Out of Egypt”
The Exodus route described in the Bible is surrounded with confusion and controversy. Let’s see if we can get a handle on a way the Hebrews may have traveled, where they crossed the water to leave Egypt, and where they ended-up that was completely, totally, and utterly “out of Egypt.”
Exodus Route – The Sinai Peninsula
Why is the true Exodus route important? Among other reasons, there is a long line of critics who have called the biblical account into question not only because of its supernatural elements, but because of the complete lack of evidence that a million or more Hebrews occupied the so-called Sinai Peninsula -- where the traditional Mt. Sinai is located -- and wandered around there for 40 years. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take my wife and kids on a picnic without leaving something behind -- like, for instance, several forks, a couple of bottle caps, assorted toys, my wife’s lipstick, and an extra set of car keys that I keep on hand in case I lose my car keys on a picnic. Multiply that by 40 years, and we’d be talking about a significant treasure trove.
And yet decades of archaeological sleuthing in the Sinai Peninsula have not produced any significant number of artifacts that could realistically be attributed to the “six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” that Exodus 12:37 describes. Therefore, many scholars have either argued that the Bible greatly exaggerates the number of people comprising the children of Israel who came out of Egypt, or the entire account is a “founding myth” fabricated hundreds of years later in order to give the Hebrews an identity.
Exodus Route – The Wilderness of Egypt
When it comes to the Exodus route, I have to wonder whether we have been missing some details in the biblical account that can help us determine the actual way the Hebrews traveled when they left Egypt. What body of water is being described in the Red Sea crossing? Where did the Israelites end up once they were out of Pharaoh’s jurisdiction? As I always ask myself when I start looking for something I’ve misplaced, “Have I been looking in all the wrong places?”
Probably the most important question we need to answer in regard to the Exodus route is, “When were the Hebrews completely ‘out of Egypt’?” In other words, were they out of Egypt when they hit the edge of Egypt’s wilderness on their third day of travel, or did Pharaoh’s jurisdiction extend far beyond that three days’ journey that Moses and Aaron initially requested, which merely began their headlong flight to the sea?
Today, if you travel in a vehicle from Cairo, across the Suez Canal, and continue parallel to the Mediterranean coastline across the top of what we call the Sinai Peninsula (roughly 30 miles before you reach Egypt’s border with Israel and the Gaza Strip at Rafah), you will come to a seaside oasis called El Arish. This is where the Wadi El Arish -- an occasional stream -- meets the sea, and shore currents have created a beautiful little beach. Although you are 185 miles from Cairo, and although you haven’t seen much in the way of civilization along the way, you are still well within the borders of Egypt. And that jurisdiction is so important to the history of Egypt, that it was ceded back to Egypt by Israel from 1979 to 1982, after a series of military conflicts temporarily put its control in question.
El Arish is one of the most widely attested Egyptian towns in ancient sources, because it was so important to the political and military jurisdiction of Egypt. In fact, it is mentioned by its ancient name “Tharu” in ancient records as Egypt’s final border town to the north long before the Exodus, and for centuries afterward. It was even the place where one Pharaoh -- Haremhab, the last pharaoh before Rameses I -- began the practice of exiling certain criminals whose noses had been cut off as punishment for their crimes. I suppose their grotesque presence at the border of Egypt would serve as a warning to others that Egypt was tough on crime. Later, the Greeks called Tharu “Rhinocolura” (“place of no noses”) because of this ongoing practice. Translators of the Septuagint equated Rhinocolura with the “Brook of Egypt,” or what we know today as El Arish.
So, if someone was going to leave Egypt by the northern route, they would have to travel at least as far as today’s El Arish to be anywhere close to “out of Egypt.” But is there another way out? If you were to hop on a plane and fly south-southeast all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea, you would arrive at the tip of the gulf, where the Israeli city of Eilat occupies the western shore, and the Jordanian city of Aqaba is on the other side. Travel about 18 miles north of Eilat to a place called the Timna Valley, and you can visit a beautiful and rugged national preserve of natural geologic formations, ancient copper mines, and evidence of a heavy Egyptian presence. Among the Egyptian relics and artifacts you’ll find north of Eilat are mining works, a rock carving of Ramses III, and a temple to the Egyptian god Hathor dating to at least the 14th century BC. In fact, it appears that the Egyptians were there for hundreds of years, at least until the 11th century BC.
If we draw a straight line from the modern town of El Arish all the way down to the Timna Valley near the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, we get a pretty good idea of the extent of Egypt’s domination and jurisdiction in antiquity -- particularly during the period of the Exodus. Clearly, Egypt’s jurisdiction includes all of the Sinai Peninsula. If God was going to take His people Israel all the way “out of Egypt,” completely beyond the jurisdiction of Pharaoh, they would need to leave the area that we call the Sinai Peninsula.
It’s important to remember that ancient kings and pharaohs were every bit as particular about their control over vast areas of land back then as they are today. And no place, not even the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, would be arbitrarily “up for grabs.” Some nation would have the prerogative to use its vast wadis and coastal plains as highways for their army -- and all the evidence tells us that nation was Egypt. It was very important for the pharaohs to maintain control over the Sinai Peninsula, because its large, inhospitable desert created the perfect buffer between Egypt proper and any forces coming down along the Mediterranean coastal plain. In addition, its natural borders at the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba meant that Egypt could keep an eye on Midian across the Red Sea with small garrisons stationed on a few high spots along the coast.
Exodus Route – The Proposed Routes
When analyzing the Exodus Route, is it any wonder that God first led the Hebrews out of Egypt proper to the edge of this wilderness -- which the Bible calls “The Wilderness of the Red Sea” -- and then led them in a steady, exhausting, purposeful march all the way to the western shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba at the very edge of Pharaoh’s jurisdiction?
I should mention that a couple of different Exodus routes across the Sinai have been proposed by top scholars that take the Bible at its word. One route crosses the interior of the Sinai Peninsula, eventually following a broad wadi onto an isolated alluvial plain about two-thirds of the distance up the Gulf of Aqaba. There, the Hebrews would have been trapped, and God certainly could have parted the waters of yam suph and led them into Midian, where God first spoke to Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
I tend to prefer a second proposed Exodus route, which would have taken the Hebrews along the “Way of the Red Sea” all the way to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, around the horn, and then blocked them there where the mountains meet the sea just north of modern-day Sharm el-Sheikh. This spot seems to have more recognizable geographic landmarks, like an island (possibly Baal Zephon) marking the mouth of the gulf (possibly Pi-HaHiroth), near a natural Egyptian watchtower on the coastal plain (possibly Migdol). Take your pick. The point is that in order to escape from Pharaoh’s rule, the Hebrews had to get out of the Sinai Peninsula -- Egypt’s wilderness -- and into a place that was definitely “NOT Egypt.” Because the wilderness of the Red Sea was under Pharaoh’s jurisdiction, he had the right to maintain a network of spies that could track the Hebrews, and he could run a chariot force across it without creating and international incident. So he did both. And when it appeared that the Hebrews were hopelessly trapped and utterly hemmed in by the mountains and the sea, he moved in for the kill. You know the rest of that story. God parted the waters of the Red Sea -- the real Red Sea, mind you -- dried a roadway for the Hebrews to travel on, and then enabled them to cross without losing a man, woman, or child. When Pharaoh stuck his royal nose where it definitely didn’t belong, he lost everything. From there the Hebrews traveled on to meet their God at Mt. Sinai, in Midian, but that’s another story altogether.